Five years after this ‘passion project’ officially kicked off, we’re excited to announce that Open Health will hold it’s first pilot programs in 2020.  Read on for the back story and please do consider supporting this special initiative.

The journey so far

It’s been the ‘long and winding road that leads to your door”, as sung by the Beatles in 1970.

The idea for Open Health first formed back in 1999 as a result of founder, Stephen Penman’s experience of a personal health crisis and the apparent absence of support in the health system for people trying to make comprehensive lifestyle changes.

At the time, the internet was quite young, so the original idea was to establish a self-generating and self-sustaining national network of face-to-face lifestyle change ‘HELP’ groups (small peer groups offering structured lifestyle change education and support), all connected and managed by a central website and administration that would provide structured content to be delivered in the groups, that would train the group facilitators, and would ensure all participants were followed up year after year, indefinitely.

Over the years as social networking and education technology became more sophisticated, a fully online program became feasible, enhancing the original intention for the program to be cost effective, scalable and widely accessible. Serendipitously, in 2006 while doing his Masters by Research in the Department of Complimentary Medicine at RMIT University, Stephen was appointed course coordinator for a new online lifestyle change elective, which then became a core subject in the Master of Wellness at RMIT, a course he taught for three years to 300 undergraduate and postgraduate students. The course required an experiential process of personal change to be delivered entirely online, and within the limitations of the university Blackboard system!  Curiously, this course was based on a book by Neal and Carla Hoptman called the ‘Health Enhancement Lifestyle Program’ (also called HELP).

The idea finally became a PhD candidature in 2010 while Stephen was still CEO of the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine, commencing at Western Sydney University with a detailed research proposal and later, a major systematic literature review. The review investigated questions such as, ‘Which psychological frameworks and behaviour change techniques are associated with successful health behaviour change programs?’, ‘Which frameworks and techniques target which behaviours, and which can/cannot be combined?’, and ‘What are the characteristics of successful internet-based health interventions?’

As well as scouring the medical and scientific literature, we also investigated:

  • Comprehensive models of health and wellbeing like the ESSENCE model
  • Effective lifestyle change programs around the world (whether face to face or online) like the Ornish Spectrum and the Stanford Chronic Disease Self Management programs
  • Trends in education towards online and social learning and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), eg: Coursera and Khan Academy
  • Persuasive social networking and engagement techniques (gamification) being used by the internet giants like Facebook and Linkedin

…and distilled the best of all this into the design for Open Health.

It wasn’t until 2014 that the project actually had a name and logo, courtesy of the exceptional Loupe Studio, and a website by Crealo Design, just two of the many organisations and individuals who have contributed time and expertise. By this time the Lifestyle Medicine Foundation (a registered health promotion charity) had also been established, aiming to support the project via grants and philanthropy, an expert Advisory Panel had been appointed, and Open Health was taking shape as an innovative health-tech startup.

Then came early stages of development. In particular, a period of about 18 months during which Stephen worked with a Drupal (open source CMS) developer to build a prototype for testing purposes. Through this process we refined the small peer groups model and tested engagement techniques, but still had to find the funding and a technical lead to oversee development of the ‘enterprise’ (national scale) version.

Throughout this time the project was supported by grants and donations. In particular we want to acknowledge the Nancy & Vic Allen Stroke Prevention Fund and the Jacka Foundation of Natural Therapies, who generously supported the academic research and developmental testing stages of the project.

An important turning point occurred in 2017 when a software engineer previously working for Amazon in the US, returned home to Melbourne and took on the role of Lead Developer for Open Health. Development of the enterprise platform commenced using Ruby on Rails for the back end, and a front end Javascript framework called ‘React’, developed by Facebook.

The road ahead

With a launch date in sight and funding needs for the next stages clear, a video to introduce Open Health to the world was commissioned from filmmaker Stefan Markworth, and in March 2017 our Nest Coworking office team of ‘passionistas’ assembled in the boardroom for an Open Health ‘Roadmap’ meeting to discuss the remaining milestones to the launch of Open Health, assisted by sketch note artists from Sketch Videos, who offered an entertaining graphical interpretation of the discussion in the ‘story so far’ part of the meeting (main picture above).

To the present day, with the conceptual framework for the program well developed and tens of thousands of lines of code written, pilot groups are expected to begin in 2020 with the first beta release of the actual platform expected by mid 2021, followed by the first clinical trial, staged releases to groups of supporters and stakeholders, and widespread release soon after.

Some things don’t change

You’ve probably heard the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, referring to the underlying fundamentals.  Although technology has changed dramatically in recent decades and Open Health is now described as ‘disruptive health tech’, humans are still the same and the underlying philosophy remains much as it was originally conceived:

  • Health and health behaviour are influenced by their social and environmental context
  • Structure and long term support is needed to assist people wanting to make and maintain lifestyle change
  • Change in one area of a person’s health is supported (or undermined) by all the other areas
  • We are profoundly social and emotional beings. Connection, peer support and emotional coping skills support change
  • Self-empowerment and enhancing self-efficacy to manage our own health is the first step towards happier, healthier lives

You would also think that in the years since 1999, the original unmet need in the health system (a structure to support people needing or wanting to make lifestyle changes) would have been filled. Instead the need has become more urgent, with chronic and lifestyle-related disease dramatically on the rise – there is still no suitable national lifestyle change intervention available to practitioners to use with their patients, or for the general public to use to improve and take charge of their own health.  What has changed is that we have seen a groundswell of health consumers seeking new ways to better manage and take charge of their own health.

We warmly invite you to join the thousands of people who have already signed up to learn more about Open Health along with many hundreds of health professionals and organisations who are working with us to improve the health and wellbeing of Australians and New Zealanders.

Your support will help us achieve our goal of making Open Health widely available to everyone who wants to improve their health.